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The '90s are back on the menu

11 July, 2023
'90s cocktails and food.

Photo credits: iStock; Bluegrass Bebe; Averie Cole

Nostalgic is not the only one mixing up nostalgic flavours. Carlos Ruiz, multi-award-winning mixologist and hospitality industry consultant and the creator of an excellent rendition of that viral parmesan espresso cocktail says: "The ‘90s are back from TV shows being revamped, fashion-style influence, and of course, the cocktails. The main difference is that the new cocktails are being remodelled with less sugar, high-end spirits, and an awareness of what's going into the glass. Bartenders and mixologists are ditching the mixers and making everything from scratch. This allows us to cater and create better-balanced cocktails to please different palates."

Back in New York City, I’m in an altogether different setting. I’m tucked into the new, dimly lit Spygold by chef Dan Kluger, where it’s June and the room offers welcome cool respite from the scorching, steamy summer heat (but there’s somehow still a fireplace cackling). Spygold is a world away from the fun, pink interior of Nostalgic and I order what looks like a dirty martini garnished with slices of green apple, slung across a coupe glass with a toothpick. Once again, we have a ‘90s kid behind the bar.

“While trying to envision the cocktails of my misspent youth in the ‘90s, I often come back to the green appletini,” says Shane Anglin, the Bar Manager at Spygold. “It was always electric green, syrupy sweet, artificially tart and about $7 anywhere. This was our attempt to revive this cocktail for today’s audience. We have taken note of current tastes, the trend of a spirit-forward dirty martini and then updated the appletini to create a bright, crisp tart sipper featuring our house-made granny smith shrub.”

All over the US, bartenders and mixologists are confronting the cocktails and flavours of the ‘90s by rejecting their syrupy pasts, making drinks from scratch, using seasonal, local produce and sometimes infusing menu items with cultural elements that were never there, but should have been. After all, the ‘90s transcended geography and coalesced the experiences of all of us, whether we grew up in Hawai’i, Miami, Peru, Haifa or anywhere in between.

Also in New York, cocktail bar Analogue is shaking up passionfruit and lychee martinis with a straight face, concocted by Pancho Morales and Facundo Artia. Cocktail lounge Chez Zou (from the team behind Zou Zou’s, offering inventive and playful cocktails) is serving a Haifa Vice, “an elevated take on a Miami Vice… a totally disco cocktail in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Chez Zou’s version blends a mango colada milk punch and pomegranate jungle bird float,” says Joey Smith, previously of the NoMad and Booker and Dax.

Newly opened Peruvian restaurant Maty’s in Miami is pouring renditions of espresso martinis and white Russians with Peruvian twists – incorporating pisco, carob syrup and lucuma purée in their cocktail program. Even the cosmopolitan is back for better, not worse. Denver's OG distillery, The Family Jones, created an evolved, more thoughtful version of this classic cocktail as an elevated ready-to-drink cocktail back in 2020, borne from pandemic demands. Using their single-estate Annika Jones Vodka and natural cranberry juice, the team reintroduced the cosmo with premium ingredients – which later went on to win a Silver Medal in the 2021 San Francisco World Spirits Competition.

Confronting the past has long been something that has pushed bartenders and mixologists to new frontiers. Most of the spirits masters and restaurateurs I spoke with for this article used the term “elevated” to describe their processes. In contrast to what we were consuming in the ‘90s, they’re not wrong.

Lee Noble is the cocktail expert who works with Philadelphia’s Quaker City Mercantile in recipe development and leading cocktail classes, and I ask him why the tastes and aesthetics of the ‘90s are seeing a resurgence now. “Safe to say we (my friends and I in our little bubble, but surely many, many others in the cocktail community) saw this coming but didn’t know when it would arrive, and then COVID and the ‘90s clothing fashion precipitated the change. It was predictable to us since we were watching pre-Prohibition and 1950s cocktail cultures being exhausted by countless riffs and riffs on riffs. The only strong decade in cocktails with its own kind of flare and identity left was the garish ‘Martini Menu’ ‘90s, so it was low-hanging fruit for new bartenders to explore something their predecessors had neglected,” Noble explains.

If the current ‘90s trend has a Bible, that tome is most certainly John deBary’s just-published Saved by the Bellini & Other ’90s-Inspired Cocktails. DeBary is a self-described “drinks guy, PDT and Momofuku alum who was actually able to pull off a bowl cut for much of the ‘90s.” After reading Saved by the Bellini cover to cover, cringing over the dredging up collective memories I’ve long suppressed (RIP my neglected Tamagotchi) and longing for days that were simpler, social media-less and when more neon was worn, I marvelled at deBary’s ability to create so much newness out of this decade. And so, I reached out and asked him how on earth a book about '90s-inspired cocktails even came to be.

“My goal wasn’t to recreate the drinks of the ‘90s, it was more about creating drinks that were up to date, with a neon ‘90s aesthetic, but not trying to replicate the way drinks were made of what ingredients were used,” he says. “We’re talking about cocktails with names like ‘Salt-n-Pepa Lemonade,’ ‘Ultra-Cosmopolitan,’ ‘Slap Wrap’ and even, an ‘Absinthe-Crag’ which comprises two ingredients: absinthe and Yoo-hoo (yes, the chocolate whey and high fructose corn syrup drink). Saved by the Bellini is also a deep dive into ‘90s food history and it’s from the headnotes of this off-kilter recipe that I learn that from 1989 to 2000, Yoo-hoo was owned by Pernod Ricard, one of the world’s biggest producers of absinthe. DeBary infuses his recipes with both academic awareness and a studied palate.

“I wanted the book to feel disorienting in a time travel sense. These references are very dated on purpose, but the drinks themselves are very modern. Mixology dorks are like ‘This is so crazy because these drinks are so off the wall, but also legit.’ The integrity of the recipes is shocking to them. You can strip them of their context and be able to put them on the menu of a cocktail bar,” says deBary.

And so we have cocktails like the Yabba Dabba Doo, which incorporates whole milk with fresh citrus juices, an actual vanilla bean and Grand Marnier. This should bring you back to the days of Flintstones Push-Up pops, as it does me – specifically, to my Uncle Benito driving around Waipahu in his ice cream truck, handing out those exact pops to neighbourhood children and my gang of tiny, awkward cousins.

To put it simply, ‘90s flavours are back, but they taste better, whether they’re stripped away to reveal the dirty martini core of an appletini or heightened with pisco and absinthe. Cocktail and restaurant menus will jog your memories unless you’re under the age of 23, which makes you ineligible for wearing that Nirvana t-shirt or sipping an Ultra-Cosmopolitan.

Ingredients at Lasai in Rio.

First, meet your ingredients

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